What Does an Applied Futurist Do? | A Q&A with Tom Cheesewright
Have you ever pondered deep into the future and wondered what it holds for you? Although a futurist doesn't hold a crystal ball, they can work with you to help create a better look at what may lie ahead.
We sat down with Tom Cheesewright, an Applied Futurist, to hear his vision, and how we can respond to the future with innovation, curiosity and a little bit more clarity.
What is an applied futurist and how did you get here?
An Applied Futurist is someone who works with organisations to answer three questions.
Firstly, "what does our future look like?" I'm mostly focused on the next five years but I do work with people on longer-term foresight exercises as well. The critical word though is 'our'. Most of my work is not looking at everyone's future. It is helping organisations to understand what the future holds for them specifically.
Secondly, I help organisations to tell stories about the future. There's no point having a vision if you can't communicate it and use it to compel change. Sometimes those stories are really serious, like convincing boards of the need to invest in change. Sometimes they are more frivolous, talking about what the future holds for pizza or holidays for marketing campaigns.
Thirdly, I help organisations to change in response to the visions they see. I'm a big believer that being adaptable is the most important trait for companies seeking sustainable success, and so I help companies to develop their agility.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
I have been a futurist from a very early age, arguably since my mum bought me the Usborne Book of the Future in about 1981. I've always been fascinated by what comes next. Futurism became my full time job in 2012 after about six years writing and broadcasting about technology and the future alongside my full time jobs - first running a digital marketing agency and then founding a successful tech startup. It's an incredible opportunity to be able to explore my passion full time.
What are the most common reasons businesses call a futurist and what are they hoping to achieve?
People call a futurist out of fear, excitement or curiosity.
The fear usually comes from a shock hitting the organisation that they didn't see coming. They want to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The excitement comes when people have glimpsed an opportunity and they want to understand it better so that they can take advantage.
The curiosity is perhaps most common though. We spend a surprisingly small amount of time thinking about the future beyond the mundanities of buying insurance or ironing a shirt for the day ahead, or in a business context, preparing the budget. People are always curious about what the future may hold. By the time I've spoken to them though, they usually end up a mixture of scared and excited!
What is an essential toolkit for an aspiring futurist?
Futurism isn't crystal ball gazing. It's not exactly a science either. But it is based on a level of process and rigour. Over the last seven years I have developed three tools of my own to help me do what I do, and I teach these tools to others as well in courses and workshops.
The first tool is for looking at the near future. It helps you to capture the challenges of today and map them against the incoming trends. The second tool is about translating that vision into a story. And the third is a framework for agile organisations.
We're going through a time of accelerated change, not only technologically, but also politically. Where do politics and futurism intersect?
People have an idea that being a futurist is about campaigning for a particular outcome. Personally I am fairly politically engaged and I certainly have my own views on where we should be headed. But I don't see that as my professional role. I'm here to answer questions, to teach people tools and techniques, and to provoke and open minds. I'm more educator than lobbyist.
You say that 'robots don't take jobs, they take work' are there any myths you can dispel surrounding the fear of AI and its future?
So many myths! Though it is in some ways understandable because there is great uncertainty around the future of AI. If you gather a hundred AI experts in a room and ask them when we will have a human-equivalent digital intelligence, they will give you a hundred different answers. Some will say years, some will say never.
Perhaps the biggest myth though is that AI isn't a threat until it can think like a human. We only exercise our brains in a tiny fraction of our lives - particularly at work. Machines can already do much of the work that consumes our time and they don't have to be very smart to do it.
If there was one message that you would want an audience to take away from your talk, what would it be?
Can I have two messages?
One for organisations and one for individuals. For organisations I would say "agility trumps optimisation." If you want to build sustainable success, focus on how well your organisation responds to change, not how efficiently it does what it already does today.
For individuals, I would say "get a hobby!" A new hobby is a fantastic way to reawaken your love of learning and exercise the muscles of discovery, creativity, and communication - critical skills for the future of work.
Finally Tom, what’s next for you?
I'm putting the finishing touches to my next book!
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